You can "Go Tell It on the Mountain" 149 different ways this Christmas season.

The go-to website for evangelical church worship music boasts over 200 copyrighted versions of the medieval hymn "O Come O Come Emmanuel." Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc. (CCLI) also lists 122 licensed versions of "O Holy Night" and 202 versions of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Most have the same tune as the public domain versions, but feature new bridges or arrangements.

Your church is likely to be singing a licensed Christmas carol this December, thanks to a cycle of convenience, CCM influence, musical skills, and church identity. Today's worship world has a distinct push for new, cheap songs written for a lead singer plus a praise band, rather than the old, free songs written for keyboard instruments and a congregation.

Most worship songs from the past 100 years are under copyright. Churches can legally use them by buying hymnals, which denominations sell nearly at cost at about $10 per copy. Or, music directors can contact and pay copyright holders directly. Since the late 1980s, churches have also been able to buy subscriptions to licenses through companies such as CCLI, OneLicense, and LicenSingOnline.

CCLI charges an annual fee of $50 to $4,500, based on attendance. Since 84 percent of churches have fewer than 500 congregants, buying an annual CCLI subscription (under $230) has been an economical choice for many congregations.

Online licensing sites are economical for churches and can provide lyrics, music scores, and accompaniment tracks all at the same time—something not available for Christmas carols in most hymnals. Because of the convenience of online music services, Ben Lynerd, director of music at Chicago's Holy Trinity Church, ...

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